Writing a work of non-fiction has one event that is never quite the same if you write fiction: it’s that moment when you rip open an envelope from your publisher to reveal your latest book. And there it is, in your hands, with maps, pictures, notes and text all together. Of course it’s then that you always spot a caption added to the wrong photo or an endnote that should have been for chapter 2 gracing the final lines of the Epilogue… But touch wood, I haven’t (yet) spotted any howling errors – so well done everyone at Head of Zeus. But seriously I’m absolutely delighted with the production: the paper feels nice, the print is large and legible and the photos and illustrations look fabulous. I didn’t want them to be in colour: not only would that have doubled the price, but it would have made it feel a bit like a travel guide or a textbook. Instead they are clear and distinct, but they don’t impinge on the text. In this book, I wanted the words to be on equal terms with the images. It’s a book that’s as much about the memories and emotions they inspire, as the places themselves. There is so much more to a sense of place than landscape history alone.
But now a few facts: The Fens‘ publication date is July 11th. It will cost a maximum of £25, if you don’t take advantage of the many offers that are around. It is published by Head of Zeus (ISBN: 9781786692221), the London-based publisher who did such a great production for my Stonehenge book. It should be available in all good bookshops and I do urge you to buy it from an independent bookseller (they need all the help they can get!). Next month I’ll be heading to London, to the HoZ warehouse, where I’ll be signing copies for the independent book trade. If you are a bookseller, or you run a literary event, my publicist at Head of Zeus is Chrissy Ryan (chrissyATheadofzeus.com). I’m particularly excited by the cover, based around a superb picture of the peaty, Black Fens by the Norfolk artist Fred Ingrams:
Writing this book has been a strange journey of discovery and rediscovery. One would imagine that being based on a lifetime of research it was simple to write: but nothing could be further from the truth. It helped that I had a clear message: all the work I have done has convinced me that the Fens have been a prosperous region with a stable population of people who have been living there for a very long time indeed. Sure, there were very wet bits that could only have been accessed at certain times of the year, but then you could say the same about the lakes in the Lake District. It’s the wet/dry contrast that gives both regions their appeal. In the Lake District the contrast between land and water is pretty sudden and stark, but in the Fens there are all sorts of ‘in-between’ wet, damp, moist and even tidal landscapes, too. Moreover these changed through time, either through natural agencies, like peat growth and marine flooding, or through the hand of man, aided by dykes, pumps and sluice gates. I suppose the Fens lack the in-your-face spectacular beauty of the Lake District, but having said that, a view of Ely Cathedral in the burning reds of an autumn sunset does take a lot of beating. ‘The old golden ball’, as the sun was known, did play a major role in peoples’ daily and spiritual lives.
The Fens is arranged chronologically and true to archaeological precedents it starts with early prehistory and moves forward to more recent times. I also consider the future – which wasn’t an easy chapter to write. If you’re looking for a dispassionate account, then this isn’t the book for you. Over the past almost half-century I’ve lived and worked in the Fens and have grown very fond of them and the people who inhabit their many, varied landscapes. They have bequeathed us some of the best-preserved prehistoric sites anywhere and we probably know more about Bronze Age Peterborough than almost any other ancient region in northern Europe. Roman Fenland inherited this ancient prosperity and took it forward into Saxon and early medieval times. In the High Middle Ages, master masons and carpenters constructed some of the finest churches anywhere: the great cathedrals of Ely, Peterborough and Lincoln and the soaring magnificence of King’s College Chapel. But there are dozens of superb parish churches, too. It is a unique inheritance. In early post-medieval times Cambridge came into prominence as a world-class university and many smaller Fenland towns, such as Wisbech, Spalding and Boston acquired a reputation for liberal values and academic enquiry. But things have gone wrong, too.
There were fierce disputes over the intensive drainage campaigns of the 17th century and there have been terrible floods, often with high casualty rates. In the 20th century the historic medieval cores of towns like Kings Lynn, Wisbech and Spalding were severely damaged by development and insensitive road-building. The well thought-out railway network in the Fens was destroyed by Dr Beeching’s ‘rationalisation’ of the 1960s. Consequently many smaller market towns today boast empty high streets, poorly-attended markets and numerous charity shops. We are also beginning to appreciate the extent of irreversible change that the wholesale drainage of the 1850s and 1970s has caused. And with sea level rise a seemingly inexorable process… Need I say more? The floor of my study is about two metres above sea level; an average high tide would wet our bed, upstairs. And yet, people are still regularly granted planning permission by local authorities to build bungalows. In many respects, the story of the Fens – an area I have grown to love and cherish – could be the story of Britain, past, present and future.
We take the future for granted. But now I think the time has come to be more mature: we must learn from the people of Holland and other low-lying regions; we can’t afford to turn our backs on them. In a world that is increasingly threatened by global warming and rising sea levels we must have the humility to co-operate and pool our experiences and knowledge. If we British head off in one direction, motivated by a false understanding of our own history, largely based on naively optimistic, rose-tinted nostalgia, we are unlikely to find our way back, alive. And God knows, the history of the Fens has contained a few appalling errors and misjudgments. A wise man would learn from them. A fool would deny their existence. All I can hope is that this book may start a few people thinking.